Antique steamer trunks are steaming through the interior decorating competition to create a unique niche for themselves. Those who have discovered their allure are also discovering that restoring them are almost as fun as buying them.
By definition, a steamer trunk is a trunk that was made shallow enough to be stowed beneath the bunk in a steamship cabin. Today, those who hunt out antique steamer trunks and collect them keep curious about their history; was this trunk carried to America on the Mayflower? Was that one carried to Ellis Island? Did the other one cross the plains to travel west?
Once purchased, antique steamer trunks usually need restoration. You can certainly pay to have a company do this job for you, but do-it-yourself types might prefer to do the job themselves. This is not as difficult as it might seem.
Once you get your antique steamer trunk home, it will likely need cleaning. For starters, you can peel off any liner paper that’s glued inside. The glue will likely not adhere as well as it did originally, so it should pull right out. If not, try a product like Un-Do, which will help the paper come out without leaving any residue or stain.
There may have been mildew and mold accumulated over the years, along with other odors. You will want to clean the inside of your antique steamer trunk with a mild bleach and water solution. If possible, let the cleaned steamer trunk dry in the sun for a few hours. You can repeat the procedure if the odors have not completely gone yet, but use care not to scrub too vigorously so as not to damage the trunk’s inner material.
Antique steamer trunks usually had paper on the inside, so if you want to replicate the original, you can line the inside with decorative paper, like wallpaper, handmade papers pieced together, or even drawer liner in a decorative print. As an alternative, you can also paint the inside of the trunk.
Once you have the inside of the antique steamer trunk cleaned and painted or papered, you’ll want to deal with the outside. Inspect the truck for any structural damage. You may need to reglue or replace some of the wood trim slats, which is where your woodworking skills will come in handy.
Watch for rusting metal parts such as cornerpeices, hinges and locks. A good rust remover can work wonders, but some parts may need to be replaced entirely if they are damamged to where they do not operate.
Other common exterior parts that might need refurbishing includes embossed tin plating and canvas covering. If the canvas is just loose, you can reattach it to the truck with some plain white glue. If it is badly tattered, you are better off removing it all and replacing it with new canvas. Cut the new canvas using the old peices as patterns and glue them in place to the bare wood with white glue. Waterproof the canvas with a coat of water base polyurethane.
Since most steamer trunks were dark colors, most people opt to keep that authentic feel. You can sponge paint black and gold paints on the outside of the trunk to keep the authentic look.
There are many uses for restored antique steamer trunks. They can be used for additional storage for blankets, bed linens and table linens. You can use them to store unsightly magazines or books. Some people place organizers inside the trunks and use them for storing CDs and books. You can stack them and use as a side table or coffee table.
Photo by westerndave, Creative Commons Attribution License